“Foreigner” review by Robert Harris,speaker and writer
In 500 years, the 20th Century will likely be viewed as a pivotal century in the history of Earth.
A Century of Science: Driven by advances in energy sources, political havoc and global wars, hellish weapons were unleashed on mankind. This was followed by sporadic attempts to apply the new discoveries to peaceful purposes, generating the hope of potential prosperity for the world. The nuclear age was born and slowly, in fits and starts, began to mature.
Concepts of a World Order: Two world wars, genocide, famine, economic collapse and bloody ideological battles gave birth to the possibility that the nations of the Earth might find a way to coordinate and order their affairs. The League of Nations, the United Nations, hundreds of treaties and non-governmental organizations made the notion of global governance conceivable. Colonialism faded away, new nations were born, and advancing communication networks connected a global community. The drive for a more just and peaceful world was picking up steam.
Hundreds of Millions of People in Motion: In the 1900’s, wave after wave of people fled the cities, countries and continents of their birth, and searched for a new home. What drove this tsunami of migration, making so many people seek refuge far, far from their ancestral roots? War, famine, political upheaval, religious, tribal and racial persecution, genocide, violence? Yes.
But also, the innate human hope that thirsts for tranquility, peace, the quest for education, safe shelter and economic opportunities for the progress of future generations. Whatever the motivation, the millions of individuals who decided to pack what they could carry and start moving resulted in diversifying every corner of the world. Immigration profoundly changed the complexion of Earth.
Changes in maps, politics, culture, cuisine, literature, arts and sciences have awakened a world-wide renaissance. Since small boats could sail beyond the horizon, every person on the journey for a new home owns a unique story, with their own motivation for leaving the home of their ancestors. As we search for a deeper understanding of this human phenomenon, we will look for to the stories of these individuals and families who borrowed a suitcase and took to the road, the sea or the air. The biography of Dr. Hussein Ahdieh by Dr. Ahdieh and Hillary Chapman provides a rich picture of one man’s adventure in migration.
Foreigner is the delightful and harrowing account of a 19 year-old’s journey from Iran to America in 1961. The authors take us from the tiny, dusty, dark and perilous village of Nayriz, lacking plumbing or electricity, brimming with scorpions, wild animals, wolves, and snakes, all the way to New York City and many glittering capitals of the world. Ahdieh’s journey is the story.
Ahdieh sees no future in his small town, infamous for its brutal religious persecution against the Baha’i minority. Beginning in the 1840’s, Nayriz was known for bloody government attacks, torture, murder, kidnapping, and treachery perpetrated on the new religion. Not much had changed by the time Ahdieh was born in 1942.
The words of his narrative are so rich. Here are a few excerpts:
“I remember only darkness when the sun went down, With the onset of night, our house and all the life in our house was plunged into darkness . . .
“Our small agricultural town in 1942 probably hadn’t changed much in its one thousand years of existence. Scorpions, wild dogs, wolves, snakes . . . the public bath that smelled so bad I tried to avoid it at all costs . . . Our house faced inward as did our lives.
“Once, when I was very little, I was sleeping bundled up in blankets when a wild dog came in looking for food and took the bundle in its teeth and went back out. My little body was found later sleeping outside in the corner of the courtyard.”
Women were veiled, mostly confined to their home, seldom had any education past the age of ten, were contracted to marry at very young ages; it was like life had been since the 14th Century. His mother had very few opportunities to leave her house, and few chances to make friends with other women. Any hope for progress was dim, and the relentless physical and economic attacks on the Baha’is made this backward society unbearable. Baha’i children were routinely beaten and humiliated by school teachers. Ahdieh’s father had been kidnapped and beaten, set free but in mortal fear for the lives of his family. Ahdieh recounts the day his family joined the exodus from Nayriz:
“So it was that one day, my father and I boarded a truck headed out of Nayriz for Shiraz with our old suitcases, two blankets, and a bag of bread and feta cheese. Our mother was in Shiraz, being quarantined and treated for tuberculosis. Sitting on almond bags that had been loaded on top of the truck, I thought about my dog whom the mob had killed out in the street, the young Baha’i men who had gone up onto our roof with their rifles in case we needed protection during our father’s kidnapping, and the constant petty harassments in the streets and alleys of this little town. That was the life I was leaving behind.
On the day they left their home, Ahdieh was just six years-old.
We look at the news today and wonder why people leave their ancient homes. Why would they walk to a country where they are told they are not wanted? Perhaps because they come from a place where there is no hope at all, no other logical choice but to flee. Ahdieh and Chapman have presented this story to encourage other souls not to give up their dreams. This book is a gift for the brave people who must start walking. Page one:
Dedicated to immigrants and refugees throughout the world
This is not a sad book, but it is a realistic account of having your feet planted firmly in the air, 7,000 miles from home. Ahdieh writes, “From the moment I arrived in the United States, I had the feeling of being foreign. I was inside the country but outside the society . . . always the outsider.”
In spite of the fact that nothing is certain for an immigrant, nothing is guaranteed, and nothing is easy, Ahdieh’s story is a joy to read. You will finish it long before you are ready because of the unstoppable themes of human kindness and human resilience. This Hussein Ahdieh just does not give up, even though he gets discouraged. And he does everything in a rush. He is always in a hurry. He even waits in a hurry.
He spends $50 and comes to America on the Queen Mary with his roommate, Robin Leach. Yes, that Robin Leach.
He starts his journey to America because he is accepted at an American university: Harvard. But, he made a slight mistake in the translation . . . not Harvard but Howard. Since Howard did not have a nuclear engineering major, he decided he should go to a school to improve his English!
There is laughter on every page, juxtaposed with the sadness of families split apart and the struggle of lonely young people on their own in a foreign land. His encounters with the immigration authorities, New York City Police and traffic court are right out of a movie. They are always after him. He manages to stay one step ahead. Once, in court, he called the judge “Your Highness . . . ” The judge replied, “Your Honor will do.”
He slept in many interesting places, including a night in a jail cell, a night on a bench in the median strip on Broadway, many YMCA rooms, and restaurant kitchens. He was hired and fired dozens of times. He bristled the boss while working in a paint brush factory, he was a failed bellhop because he was too small to pick up large suitcases, mailing house, movie theater, chemical plant, selling encyclopedias, standup comedian, undertaker, Walgreen’s waiter. All disasters. He finds financial success by being the best dishwasher in Manhattan. He also learned that dishwashers eat well. He constantly adapts to the reality that he is the foreigner.
Ahdieh’s works his way out of the kitchen, receives three higher education degrees, works with some of the premier educators in America, makes friends from every walk of life, marries the love of his life, a Persian physician, raises very successful children, contributes greatly to the community he now calls his own, and has come to feel as much a part of America as anyone who was born on U.S. soil.
Is there a way that we can make this journey easier for people who are in search of a new home right this minute? Ahdieh had the advantage his worldwide Baha’i community to turn to, and they helped him many times. But what about people with no connections, people who only have dreams of being free enough to improve themselves and help others? It is now time for other immigrants to tell their own stories so that our leaders might be moved to make it easier for our fellow humans to move around this world, free from constraints, free from prejudice, and free to work hard and settle down where they wish.
Hussein Ahdieh, the 19 year-old boy from the dark and dusty village saw the promise of the future back in 1961:
“After a stormy Atlantic crossing, the Queen Mary entered the port of New York. Seeing the Statue of Liberty come into view, I thought about how far I had come, and I felt close to the millions of immigrants who had fled religious and political persecutions. Nayriz was long ago in a faraway universe—this was a new world.”
A new world, indeed. Bravo!